Talking with Juvenile Offenders about Gay Males and Lesbians: Implications for Combating Homophobia

By Van de Ven, Paul | Adolescence, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Talking with Juvenile Offenders about Gay Males and Lesbians: Implications for Combating Homophobia


Van de Ven, Paul, Adolescence


Homophobia(1) or anti-homosexual prejudice, has received much publicity in popular media as well as academic literature. This follows an increase in violence against gays and lesbians that, in the Australian context alone but not uniquely (Berrill, 1990), has resulted in up to 30 reported bashings each week in inner-city areas of Sydney and at least 14 gay-related murders in New South Wales in the past three years (Sue Thompson, NSW Police Service, reported in Sydney Star Observer, October 2, 1992). Those convicted of the assaults and killings have been mainly school children or recent graduates. They are destined to spend lengthy periods in detention with that group of young people commonly held, though empirically unsubstantiated, to be among the most homophobic -namely, juvenile offenders.

Adjudicated young offenders differ from "unofficial" juvenile transgressors and the general population in a number of ways. The most distinguishing characteristics are the amount and seriousness of offending behavior (Hollin, 1990). The differences, however, extend beyond the volume and type of crime to familial and individual contrasts. Young offenders disproportionately come from families characterized by adverse features such as low income, large size, a criminal parent, and unsatisfactory child-rearing practices (West, 1982). Additional social-structural variables and experiences that are considered to increase the probability of offending behavior include low social integration or social disorganization, perception of limited opportunities, associations with peers who also have offended, and parental rejection (Gibbons & Krohn, 1986). The relationship among offender characteristics, the legal system, and economic, social, and political systems is too complex to allow an inference that differences of the type noted above are the cause of offending behavior (Hollin, 1990). Nevertheless, it would be instructive to know if these correlates mediate homophobic attitudes and behaviors in young offenders.

From a cognitive perspective, and based on empirical evidence, Hollin (1990) has summarized a variety of styles of cognition that characterize juvenile offender populations. These include: impulsivity or failure to reflect between impulse and action; external locus of control or a perception that one's behavior is being controlled by external agents such as fate, luck or authority figures; role-taking inability or incapacity to see things from another person's point of view; disabilities in social problem solving such as inability to generate feasible courses of action, to consider various alternatives, or to plan how to achieve a desired outcome; less mature moral reasoning; and opportunism or readiness to take advantage of opportunities for criminal behavior. Whether these cognitive variables are associated with juvenile offenders' adverse reactions to homosexuals remains to be tested.

Herek (1984) has argued that most of the research into homophobia, its correlates, effects, and maintenance factors, lacks a theoretical framework for synthesizing the products of research with theory. In a series of articles and research studies, Herek (1984; 1985; 1986b; 1987; 1990) develops such a framework. He takes the functional perspective, arguing that homophobic beliefs and attitudes, similarly to other opinions, may serve different purposes based on the psychological benefit derived. These functions can be either Experiential-Schematic or Expressive. Homophobic attitudes which serve an Experiential-Schematic function are derived directly from past negative experiences with gay males or lesbians. Expressive functions, which support the majority of homophobic attitudes, are indirect in that they are not based on previous unfavorable interactions. They are either Defensive (serving, for example, to avoid psychosexual conflict or repressed homosexuality) or Symbolic. If symbolic, they are either Value-Expressive (serving, for example, a religious affirmation) or Social-Expressive (serving, for example, as a vehicle for gaining peer approval).

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